Telling A Life


dung anh (CC0)

Listen nowDownload file
Embed player
Original Air Date: 
October 23, 2016

How do you tell the story of your life? Do you focus on meaning, accomplishment and hope โ€” or on failure and loss? Psychologists say telling a good life story can make you happier. But do we also create an inauthentic version of ourselves if we turn everything into a narrative? We explore the idea of life stories, and hear why poet and singer Patti Smith chose to "write about nothing" when writing about her own life.

reading a story

Can a better life story make you happier? Psychologist Tim Wilson thinks so, and he describes a technique he calls "story-editing" to create a more hopeful and meaningful life narrative.

Fire man

TTBOOK producer Charles Monroe-Kane is a great storyteller who's led an adventurous life. Here's a wild story from his memoir "Lithium Jesus" about smuggling mob money when he lived in Prague in the 1990s.

hiding in yellow mist

Storytelling is all the rage these days โ€” and everyone seems to have a life narrative. But not philosopher Galen Strawson. He says life stories often create an inauthentic version of ourselves.

"The Days Of Abandonment" by Elena Ferrante

Alissa Quart recommends Elena Ferrante's "Days of Abandonment" and Elizabeth Hardwick's "Sleepless Nights."

Patti Smith

Legendary poet and singer Patti Smith has two selves. On stage, she revels in collaborating with the people around her and creating a memorable performance. But she reveals a very different self in her memoir "M Train." 

Show Details ๐Ÿ“ป
October 23, 2016
July 29, 2017
January 13, 2018
December 22, 2018
September 10, 2022
July 22, 2023
Full Transcript ๐Ÿ“„

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

You know those nights when you wake up at 3:00 in the morning and you start thinking about all the ways you've failed in life. All the things you didn't do, the promises you didn't keep. All the ways you screwed up. It's like the opposite of a bedtime story. Or maybe a bedtime story written by someone who hates you.

Anne Strainchamps (00:21):

I'm Anne Strainchamps. And today on To The Best Of Our Knowledge, we all have these negative stories we tell ourselves. And the trick is learning how to change them, edit them. Because telling a better life story can actually change your life.

Tim Wilson (00:36):

I was a freshman in college. I was taking an introductory biology course. And the first big test approached. And in fact it was the night before and I was all set to take out my books and study when my roommate said, "Hey, there's this party. Let's go to it."

Tim Wilson (00:54):

So I went to the party, next day took the test, and was really shocked to get it back a week or so later to see that I had failed it. I was really upset and just terrified as to maybe I'm one of those admissions errors you hear about where I didn't really belong in this high-powered college. And so story number one, this is about me and my lack of ability.

Anne Strainchamps (01:19):

This is Tim Wilson. Today he's a psychologist who studies the impact of the kinds of stories we tell ourselves. Like how to reframe failure when you're a scared college freshman.

Tim Wilson (01:32):

Story number two is I have plenty of ability, but achievement is about working hard. The failure on the biology stress shouldn't be taken as a sign that I can't do it, but a sign that I needed to work harder. And fortunately, that's the story I arrived at.

Anne Strainchamps (01:51):

In other words, he buckled down, studied his brains out and aced the next test. So this is the kind of thing self-help books teach, the power of positive thinking, affirmations, gratitude journals. But Tim Wilson is a research psychologist who's come up with a series of lab tested narrative interventions, story-editing techniques for mental health.

Tim Wilson (02:13):

Good stories are ones that give us a sense of purpose in life. We feel like we're working towards something and making progress towards it. It's an optimistic story, one that tends to look on the bright side of things. And it's one that we can find some meaning in our experience. That we don't view life as just some random series of events, but we have a good story that can explain why things do happen.

Anne Strainchamps (02:42):

What's a bad story?

Tim Wilson (02:44):

Yeah. Just the opposite of those people who are pessimistic, don't really see much meaning in their life, and don't really have a sense of purpose. I'm reminded of a New Yorker cartoon, where a man is crawling up the mountain to visit the guru to find out the meaning of life. And he makes it to the top, and there's the guru sitting there with a T-shirt that says, "Life is a bitch and it's meaningless." That's not a good story.

Anne Strainchamps (03:13):

So this exemplifies this new technique, you call it story-editing. Can you explain?

Tim Wilson (03:19):

Sure. Well, me, and I'm standing on the shoulders of many other social psychologists who have used this approach. And what it has in common is an attempt to catch people at a time when they really are unsure about how to interpret and experience. And maybe the way they are interpreting it is in a harmful way to themselves and just getting them to try to reframe that experience with a little simple intervention. There's a variety of writing exercises that people have come up with.

Anne Strainchamps (03:54):

Well, you're talking about literally telling your story, writing it down.

Tim Wilson (03:57):

Well, exactly. And it's one thing to sit there and ponder it. But there is something about the act of writing that I think really can trigger a reframing of our experiences.

Anne Strainchamps (04:07):

Why is that?

Tim Wilson (04:08):

So the psychologist James Pennebaker come up with this technique where he asks people to think of some traumatic experience they've had trouble recovering from. And he asks them to write about it typically for about 15 minutes, two or three nights in a row. It's painful.

Tim Wilson (04:26):

I think one reason we don't do this on our own is it can be upsetting. Often in the beginning, people cry. And often what people do is they start out with a very jumbled, disconnected thoughts. But by the end of this, they've reframed their experience more into a coherent narrative that allows them to move beyond it.

Anne Strainchamps (04:49):

Tell me another about another exercise. There's one you call the George Bailey exercise.

Tim Wilson (04:55):

Yeah. So you mentioned gratitude journals, and that's actually fairly controversial at this point. There are those who claim that yes, it can really help to remind ourselves each day to smell the flowers and talk about the things we're thankful for. My reading of that literature is, often it doesn't work that well because we can only thank our lucky stars for our dogs so many times before it loses its power.

Tim Wilson (05:22):

So we came up with this technique where we asked people to think about ways in which a really treasured person or experience might not have occurred. So in one study for example, we asked people who were in long term romantic relationships. One group was the gratitude group. We just said, "Tell us the story of how you met and why you're thankful for that." And that actually had very little effect on people's happiness.

Tim Wilson (05:49):

But in our George Bailey condition, it was kind of like the movie where the angel shows you what your life would've been like if you hadn't existed. In this case we said, "Tell us what your life would've been like if you had not met your romantic partner. Think about if you hadn't gone to that party where you met them, or if your first date was a disaster and hadn't worked out." It's kind of paradoxical. But thinking about that negative part of it made people more grateful for what they have and to increase their happiness.

Anne Strainchamps (06:22):

Well, why?

Tim Wilson (06:22):

Well, it reminded them of how special it was what they had. And you don't take it for granted as much, you think, "Wow, it's true. I might not have gone to that party and met my future wife. Wow, that's scary. But it really makes my current relationship seem more special."

Anne Strainchamps (06:41):

Sort of like, "Wow, I didn't realize it, but I won the lottery." As though we're all walking through life, not realizing that we've already won the lottery in so many different ways.

Tim Wilson (06:52):

Yes, that's a really good way to put it. Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (06:55):

It's funny. My father-in-law some years ago when he retired, began writing life history. And one of the things he discovered at the end of the whole thing that fascinated him and me, was all the points in his life that he thought had been mistakes or setbacks or wrong turns led to something that he really valued in his life that wouldn't have happened otherwise.

Tim Wilson (07:21):

And to be honest, it doesn't really matter whether that's true or not. What really matters is he came to believe that and it gave more meaning to the way his life did turn out.

Anne Strainchamps (07:32):

It seems to me that one of the assumptions you're making is that it's possible for us to be in control of our life story. But most of the time that's not how life feels. I walk through a great deal of my life worried and thinking, "There's a good chance I'm not going to be good enough at something." I don't think of that as a story. That's just my life.

Tim Wilson (07:54):

Well, yes. And to be fair, I don't want to oversell this. I don't want to claim that starting tomorrow morning, your listeners can completely change their life stories. There's another writing exercise that I think can be helpful, and that's to write about ourselves from a third-person perspective as if we are observing ourselves and telling the story that someone else might tell about us. And if you really take that step back and say, "Look, think in the past about something you were really worried about and imagine an objective observer saying, 'Yeah, you know that was ridiculous. There was no reason to be worried about that.'" And that can actually help revise our own stories.

Anne Strainchamps (08:38):

And you really want to get novelistic about it. You could create all kinds of characters in your mind, and each of them could write your life story so you can see it from multiple perspectives.

Tim Wilson (08:49):

Well, it's funny you say that. And in my book Redirect, I talk about some authors who claimed that they changed their lives by writing novels, that the characters they created often were ways to... They were better versions of themselves. And by really developing these characters, they began to view themselves differently.

Anne Strainchamps (09:10):

Is there also an element here of self-fulfilling prophecy? I'm thinking of the kind of new agey or self-help kind of affirmation we create our own reality. If you tell a different story, interpret yourself and how you are in the world differently, maybe different things will happen to you.

Tim Wilson (09:30):

The one thing I would say to separate myself from the new agey kind of approach is I do think it's something important to add that all of these techniques have been really vetted well by good experiments. I'm a research psychologist and I really believe strongly in good scientific tests of these approaches. And that's one thing about the self-help industry is there's a million books that tell you what to do, but very few of them have been actually tested to see if they work.

Tim Wilson (10:00):

But you're right, the message is somewhat the same of we do create our own realities to some extent and that's what determines how happy we are. Now obviously, those stories have to be tied to reality to some extent. We can't live in a complete fantasy world.

Anne Strainchamps (10:16):

So I'm going to go way on a limb and ask you kind of a wildcard question, but this is something I think about as a journalist. There's also a national narrative, a collective narrative, and journalists are a big part of that. We all read dozens of stories every day in the news. And particularly during this election season for instance, you can see this playing out. And often the stories are really negative. How might a country change its collective narrative? Could it?

Tim Wilson (10:46):

Well wow, that is a big question. And I wish I had a easy answer to it. How those stories get spun and perpetuated in this age of social media is fascinating. I do think it is a way that social media can really have a big influence.

Tim Wilson (11:06):

So just recently there was a writer who, in reaction to Donald Trump, asked her Twitter followers to respond with instances where they had been sexually abused. And the response was amazing. Millions of women were responding up to 50 a minute. I think that really helped change the narrative for people who didn't believe this was real or an incredible problem in our society.

Tim Wilson (11:35):

So often these things spin out of control and I don't have a good answer to you as to how to change it. But I do think social media can play a role.

Anne Strainchamps (11:45):

Makes me want to be really careful about what I post on Facebook.

Tim Wilson (11:49):

Well, yes.

Anne Strainchamps (11:51):

Maybe we all should be.

Tim Wilson (11:52):

Yes. Yeah, yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (11:57):

Tim Wilson is a psychologist at the University of Virginia. His book is called Redirect, The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change.

Anne Strainchamps (12:11):

So our producer, Charles Monroe-Kane, is one of those guys who can captivate an entire bar with stories from his life. A lot of them are from the period when he was living in Prague in his 20s. The whole underground rave scene and self-medicating with way, way too many drugs. So Charles is a great storyteller and he's had an adventurous life.

Anne Strainchamps (12:32):

The thing is, I've heard his stories for years and he doesn't always tell them exactly the same way. They've shifted over time, morphed a bit as Charles himself has changed. Well now he's put a bunch of them down on paper, in a new memoir called Lithium Jesus. So are these the definitive versions, the literal truth? Is there even such a thing? In any case, here's one of our favorites.

Charles Monroe-Kane (12:58):

Mark is a strange guy. He's the cynical Russian Jew who wears only rubber and he has a finger in his ear, an actual human finger he wears in the ear. And when I first met him, he was a recovering from an absinthe binge, which put him into a coma and he lost his pancreas. Me at the time, I was just this bored dude. I was this idealist cook at a sport's bar in Prague who did a lot of meth and drank a lot.

Charles Monroe-Kane (13:20):

We hit it off swimmingly. We become really good friends and we bonded over this thing in the early 1990s called the internet. And one thing led to another and we decided, "Let's open up the first ever internet cafe in Eastern Europe. And we're going to call it the Terminal Bar."

Charles Monroe-Kane (13:40):

We were very extravagant in opening up this internet cafe. We had dozens of employees. We opened up a cinema next door, a bookstore. We bought an entire building and rehab that for $900,000. We spent two years and another half million dollars just getting it ready. It was incredible. Until one day, went on my way to work, I had a little note found in the front of the internet cafe and it says, "Chuck, we need to talk." And it was from Mark.

Charles Monroe-Kane (14:09):

This guy normally wakes up at 3:00 in the afternoon. And this was like 7:00 in the morning and he was awake and he was crying. On his kitchen table was a box, and inside the box was a cow eyeball. And on top of the cow, eyeball written in blood said, "Pay up."

Charles Monroe-Kane (14:29):

Marketa, his lovely girlfriend, she worked for the mob which I had no idea. And she was doing real estate deals for the Italian mob with the Chechens. And she was skimming, skimming off the top between the Chechens and the Italians. And she needed to launder the money that she was skimming. And she needed an unwitting guy who would run a business, who would spend too much money, go over budget, go beyond deadline to be her money launderer. That would be me.

Charles Monroe-Kane (14:57):

But there was more. She had gone over $250,000 she had messed up with the Chechens, and they grabbed her. And they said, "You got 72 hours to give us $250,000, or we're going to put a bullet in your head."

Charles Monroe-Kane (15:10):

The guy is in Italy, a guy named Antonio. He was willing to pay off the debt to the Chechen mob the $250,000, because he was making a lot of money through Marketa's deals. But somebody had to come and pick up the money, smuggle the money from Italy all the way to Prague to give to the Chechens.

Charles Monroe-Kane (15:27):

Mark's like, "I can't go, man. I'm recovering from my coma where I had lost my pancreas from drinking too much absinthe. But the Italians trust you."

Charles Monroe-Kane (15:35):

I'm like, "Italians trust me? I don't have any mobsters. How could they trust me?"

Charles Monroe-Kane (15:38):

He said, "It's Antonio. You remember Antonio?"

Charles Monroe-Kane (15:41):

I'm like, "Oh, my opera buddy."

Charles Monroe-Kane (15:45):

A lot of people would say, "Oh, I'm going to save her life. I'm going to save the internet cafe." That's not why I went. I thought it'd be fun. I went on a lark and I took my best friend Mr. D with me. And together, we drove all the way to Verona, about 12 hours from Prague. We got there.

Charles Monroe-Kane (16:03):

Just to show the larkness of our existence at the time, we did a line of meth in the car before we went down there. We get to the hotel that we had in Verona and we drank bottles of liquor. We got wasted. We were completely out of control. We broke mirrors. We peed on the floor. And in the morning we woke up and I remember I had fuzz in my nose from the mattress I had ripped open. And the bellhop was waking me up saying, "Your guests are here."

Charles Monroe-Kane (16:29):

I open up the hotel door and there he was, Antonio. Not the opera Antonio I knew, who was really fun to hang out with by the way. But this was the guy in the black suit and he looked scary. And next to him were two henchmen. And each one had handcuffs on and the handcuffs were attached to a metal suitcase. Each one of them had their sports jackets unbuttoned. And you could see in that leather case hanging out, you could see their guns. Lark was officially over.

Charles Monroe-Kane (16:59):

It was such a terrible experience to look at those guns and to think about all the questions I hadn't asked myself. All the things I should've asked like, "Is this illegal to do while I get shot at the border while I go to jail?"

Charles Monroe-Kane (17:10):

Eventually we get the money, we get organized, we get out, we get in our car. I got to pause for a moment and tell you the car that we brought. We brought Marketa's car. That'd be cool to bring her car, right? We're saving her life.

Charles Monroe-Kane (17:20):

She drove Skoda, which is the national car of the Czech Republic. Skoda in the Czech language means pity. It's what you say if you stub your toe, "Oh, skoda." Oh, skoda. You spilled your coffee in your paper skoda. So we're driving our Skoda and we cross our first border, the Italian-Austrian border, and then the fates were not smiling upon us.

Charles Monroe-Kane (17:41):

Our car died. And it would never to be driven again. And we spent the next 48 hours spending the night in a horse stable at airports, bus depots, train stations. We didn't know what we were doing. We were trying to figure out how to get back to Prague. Eventually we rent a car, we buy new suits, we shave our beards and goatees and take our piercings out. And we said, "Let's do this."

Charles Monroe-Kane (18:06):

And we get on the Autobahn, take it to the one place we feared. And that place was the German-Czech border. It was a smuggler's paradise on a good day, full of gypsies and thieves and prostitute. Prostitutes who would wear 1980s aerobic gear. And that's how you knew they were prostitutes. It was just a surreal, surreal place.

Charles Monroe-Kane (18:26):

And there we were waiting in line, freaking out. And then we get to the border. Crossing in the border, guard looks at us and says, "Pull over." And then there's like this eruption of sound. And I don't know what it is, it's snowing. So I run on the window and I hear it. And then I heard, "Let me goal. Let me goal."

Charles Monroe-Kane (18:49):

The Czech Republic had just won the European championship in hockey, and the border guards went crazy. They're totally excited, they're jumping around. And Mr. D quietly and slowly, just a 5 miles an hour, gets the car and we crossed the border.

Charles Monroe-Kane (19:08):

The moment we crossed the border, I remember it because it was like someone had turned down the volume. And it was like I was in this surreal movie and I didn't like it. I didn't like it at all. And when we get to Prague to deliver the money to Mark, the city was in impromptu celebration. It was fantastic. But I couldn't hear anything, I was like in this weird bubble.

Charles Monroe-Kane (19:28):

And we get to his apartment, I remember ringing the door and then lifting my head back. When I lifted my head back, I could feel the snow melting on my face. And I just remember saying, "I'm done, that's it. I am done with all of it."

Charles Monroe-Kane (19:45):

Did not sure what it was. Was it the drug lifestyle? Was it this crazy lifestyle that would say, "Hey, it's okay to smuggle money for the mob."

Charles Monroe-Kane (19:51):

I don't know what it was, but I was done with it. And within a few months, it was over. I left and never went back again. That was almost 20 years ago. And I think back at that moment now and realize what a major moment it was. And it also makes me think about how we tell the stories of our past.

Charles Monroe-Kane (20:12):

For me and I think for a lot of people, we exaggerate the stories of our past. Some people exaggerate, like the quarterback in the bar, how many touchdowns you threw. Or some of us make ourselves the goats of the past in the butt of our own jokes. I wanted to move forward in my life. And I thought the only way I could move forward was to understand my past. Not the BS version of my past to tell them bars, but the real version of my past.

Charles Monroe-Kane (20:35):

And to do that, I realized the only way to do that was to not judge anyone. Not to judge people like Mark, who obviously was not very cool friends. To not judge many, many, many people in my life who have hurt me like many people who have hurt you in your life. Do not judge them.

Charles Monroe-Kane (20:48):

And most importantly, and I think the hardest one, to not judge yourself. And I think once I realized I didn't have to judge myself anymore, then I think I found my path. And with that, I found my narrative. And that's how I found my story.

Charles Monroe-Kane (21:01):


Anne Strainchamps (21:20):

That's our producer, Charles Monroe-Kane. His new memoir is called Lithium Jesus.

Anne Strainchamps (21:31):

And coming up, what's wrong with thinking of your life as a story? Plus Patti Smith joins us to talk about her memoir, M Train.

Anne Strainchamps (21:39):

I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (21:47):

A while ago, I annoyed a lot of people by posting on Facebook that I'm getting a little sick of storytelling. I mean, I like first-person narratives and all, but it's become such a dominant form on podcasts and radio and TV shows and books and magazines and live events. Sometimes it seems like everyone everywhere is just dying to tell you their story.

Anne Strainchamps (22:12):

And the philosopher Galen Strawson thinks our current obsession with life stories is a problem. In fact, he recently wrote an essay for Aeon Magazine titled, I Am Not A Story. And that made Steve Paulson want to know more.

Steve Paulson (22:26):

There's a growing movement these days to think of our lives as narratives, that we are the stories we tell. And there's even a branch of psychotherapy that tries to get people to tell better stories about themselves. Why does this obsession with life narratives trouble you?

Galen Strawson (22:42):

Oh, first of all, it has no resemblance to anything I experience in my own case. Well, I might ask you straight away, do you think of yourself, of your life as a narrative?

Steve Paulson (22:52):

I tend not to, but I also certainly tell plenty of stories about my life. And I guess we have to kind of parse the differences there.

Galen Strawson (23:01):

And what you say when you say you tell stories about your life is what many people say. But already I don't get the use of the word story. I like to distinguish between a narrative and a chronology, where a chronology is just knowledge of basic fact. I know when I went to school and I left school at 16, and so on and so on.

Galen Strawson (23:21):

There are two claims. One is that we all live like this, we all experience our lives like this. And the second claim is that we ought to do this, we ought to experience our lives as a narrative. And I just think both of them are false.

Steve Paulson (23:35):

So you're saying you do not have a life story about yourself?

Galen Strawson (23:39):

I don't think so. There might be lots and little bits, but there isn't a story, isn't a continuous narrative. Here another thing cuts in, which is I think that the way our deep characters as it were, are really principally in effect of genetic inheritance and very early upbringing before the time at which we can remember anything. So I'm very skeptical about the idea that we really changed dramatically after a certain point, and even more skeptical about the idea that we could be in control of that process.

Steve Paulson (24:12):

Is partly what you're saying at these stories that we tell about ourselves, they're often just not true?

Galen Strawson (24:17):

There's terribly heavy evidence that we must remember. People could be deeply self-deluded as to what's actually going on. And of course, people like Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, has amassed this enormous amount of evidence about how deceived we are about what's actually going on.

Steve Paulson (24:36):

And of course, the thing about telling a life story is inevitably, we're going to play up certain things and we're going to forget about other things either intentionally or not. I mean, to shape the story, it's like a novel.

Galen Strawson (24:48):


Steve Paulson (24:49):

What are you going to put in there and what are you going to exclude? But then if you're talking about a real life, there's deliberate or maybe unconscious omission as well.

Galen Strawson (24:58):

Right. Sure.

Steve Paulson (25:00):

Which raises then the question of how authentic that grand narrative is.

Galen Strawson (25:04):

Well, you're going to get massive variation. Jean-Paul Sartre is interesting because he saw... He's on my side really. So in his famous novel Nausea, I'll quote you something. He says, "A man." He means a human being. "A man is always a teller of stories. He lives surrounded by his own stories and those of other people. He sees everything that happens to him in terms of these stories. And he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it." And this for him is actually almost his definition of inauthenticity. And he's the guy from whom we got the concept of inauthenticity.

Steve Paulson (25:42):

So you said that you yourself don't have a kind of life narrative. I mean, it does raise the question of how you construct your own sense of identity.

Galen Strawson (25:51):

Yeah. But that is not something I need to do. It's really I've just got it. Yeah, so you're right. So Oliver Sacks, a great man. He said, "Each of us..." I'm quoting actually. "Each of us constructs and lives a narrative." And then he says that this narrative is us, our identities. That seems very odd to me. I mean, it makes me think of my friends before they had children. And they all thought that they were all sort of good liberals and they thought that you could shape people.

Steve Paulson (26:22):

And then you have kids and you realize, "No, they kind of had." Totally unexpected.

Galen Strawson (26:27):

Then you have kids and what you realized is that the children are born with characters deeply, deeply, deeply. And then of course there's all that stuff you lay on them. So I just think our identity is just given. But what I've discovered is that psychologists and philosophers use the word identity very differently.

Galen Strawson (26:43):

So philosophers tend to mean your identity is your deepest self, what you truly are. But actually, psychologists use it to mean precisely your conception of yourself. I've only recently discovered how we've been misunderstanding each other. And they will say, "Of course you construct your identity because that's your conception of yourself." But when I talk about having an identity, I just know that I've got a certain character.

Steve Paulson (27:10):

So when you look back at who you were when, I don't know, you were 15 or 30, do you think you were essentially the same person you are now?

Galen Strawson (27:19):

I have no sense that I was there when I was 15 or 30 or 45 or 50. Absolutely none. It means nothing to me.

Steve Paulson (27:30):

What do you mean you have no sense of who you were back then?

Galen Strawson (27:35):

Not really. I know a lot about what the people I knew were like. But if you asked me to try to describe myself, I'm sure I would come up with a few thoughts.

Steve Paulson (27:47):

Do you think there's such a thing as a true self?

Galen Strawson (27:50):

I actually do. And sometimes people are so surprised that I say that. I do think we have a deep essence, a deep personal essence. Pierce is one of the people who might be sort of as having gone furthest in sort thinking about his past and relating it to his present. And he, at one point, is discussing how he's trying to shape himself. And then he comes up with this line about how really all that ever happens if you succeed is that you become who you really are, which I think is very good. You can't make yourself differently from how you are, whatever external front you put on.

Steve Paulson (28:29):

You're really asking us to be more honest about examining ourself, right? I mean, it sounds like you're saying the problem with a lot of life stories. I mean, they're good stories. They're not necessarily very accurate. They're inauthentic, or they can be.

Galen Strawson (28:42):

Yes, I think that's right. Joan Didion, she'd be telling a story to her family and they'd all say, "That's just not what happened." And she would say, "I don't care." And I'm not going to say she's a morally worse person because she wants to sort of evolve within her creative fiction of her life. That's why I would hesitate about saying honest or dishonest. I think there are people who are very committed to the facts and people who may live best in this kind of semi-inventive.

Steve Paulson (29:14):

So why do you think these life narratives are so popular now? I mean, it seems like there's something that's happened in the last few decades that has brought this whole idea to the forefront.

Galen Strawson (29:24):

Yeah. I mean, now the word has gone out of control. And so every time you turn on the news you hear, "Well, the narrative at the White House this afternoon is da, da, da." So it's just become like a word just for meaning what people are saying, or something like that. And I don't necessarily object to it as used in that way. What I object to is the very specific idea that you ought to as it were, try to live your life as a narrative and see it as one. I just think you are going to, almost certainly, going to just sink into inauthenticity if you do that.

Anne Strainchamps (30:08):

That's Galen Strawson. He's a philosopher at the University of Texas and he was talking with Steve Paulson. And now, Bookmarks, Writers on Books They Love.

Alissa Quart (30:20):

Hi, I'm Alissa Quart, author of Republic of Outsiders and the editor-in-chief of the journalism nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Alissa Quart (30:30):

The two books that I was interested in, they were seemed very related to me. One is called Days of Abandonment and the other is called Sleepless Nights. Everyone has been talking about Elena Ferrante's Naple trilogy. The two best friends, Laila and Alina, growing up in a hardscrabble post-war neighborhood, forcing each other out of their backgrounds through their intellect, competing over brilliance.

Alissa Quart (30:55):

But before these books, there was an even greater one by Ferrante called Days of Abandonment. First published in the US in 2005. In that book, Ferrante's heroine, in first person, goes to extremes of feeling and almost bodily harm when she discovers her husband's affair with a younger woman. Olga, a middle-aged wife and mother, neglects her kids, obsesses over her husband's sexual acts. Much of it transpires in a single apartment building where Olga almost dissolves.

Alissa Quart (31:27):

One of Ferrante's strengths is she writes about things that are very, very intense, but not typical. The way that female friends fuse and compete. What is your interior life when you've been sexually betrayed?

Alissa Quart (31:39):

It reminded me a lot of a 1979 book by Elizabeth Hardwick called Sleepless Nights. In her review in the Times that year, the writer Joan Didion dropped her cool and called it extraordinary and haunting. In Sleepless Nights, a young woman has a "blue, limpid boredom" at night. She was a "dramatic star of ennui".

Alissa Quart (32:03):

Sleepless Nights is a beautiful, beautiful interior monologue about a woman thinking back on her life in her apartment in New York City, and looking out the window. But it goes back to the south, it goes back to earlier times, her college years.

Alissa Quart (32:18):

All these young writers are rediscovering the book Speedboat by Renata Adler. But Sleepless Nights is to my mind, the one to look for. This is a book that meshes fiction and autobiography like Days of Abandonment. It's about interior states, insomnia, urban life and betrayal. In Hardwick's case, reputedly, this is based on her own feelings of betrayal and how she was represented in the poetry of her ex-husband, the great Robert Lowell. It has the unusual savage intensity to it, but like Days of Abandonment, it pays attention to sentences while everything is going to hell.

Anne Strainchamps (32:54):

Alissa Quart recommends the Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante and Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick. You'll find more Bookmarks Plus and interview with Quart on our website. That's at

Anne Strainchamps (33:14):

Coming up, we'll talk with Patti Smith about solitude, literary masterpieces, and her accidental career as a rock star.

Anne Strainchamps (33:21):

I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (33:31):

If you're of a certain age, you know this song.

Anne Strainchamps (33:40):


Anne Strainchamps (33:40):

Patti Smith from her landmark album, the Horses. I remember the year it came out. I was in college in Philadelphia, and for a while, it's all any of us listened to.

Anne Strainchamps (33:52):

Patti Smith was the great punk rock poet of the '70s, the singer who brought Rambo and beat poetry into rock and roll

Anne Strainchamps (34:00):


Anne Strainchamps (34:06):

In the early '80s, Patti Smith married fellow musician, Fred "Sonic" Smith, and she disappeared from the music scene. The two of them moved to Detroit. They raised two children. And when Fred died too young in 1994, Patti moved back to New York and she took up music again.

Anne Strainchamps (34:23):

Today she still tours, but now she's also made her name as a writer. Her memoir, Just Kids, won the National Book Award. And she's got a new book out, M Train, another memoir. But this time, it's a story told in fragments. Memories of Fred, elegies to her favorite writers, and of Steve Paulson discovered even dreams.

Patti Smith (34:44):

"It's not so easy writing about nothing." That's what a cowpoke was saying as I entered the frame of the dream. Vaguely handsome, intensely laconic. He was balancing on a folding chair, leaning backwards. His Stetson brushing the edge of the dun-colored exterior of a lone cafe. He just pulled the brim of his hat over his eyes and kept on talking.

Patti Smith (35:10):

"But we keep on going." He continued. Fostering all kinds of crazy hopes to redeem the lost, some sliver of personal revelation. "It's an addiction. Like playing the slots or a game of golf." The sun caught the edge of his belt buckle, projecting a flash that shimmered across the desert plain.

Patti Smith (35:33):

"I'd been here before, haven't I?" He just sat there, staring out at the plain. "Son of a bitch," I thought. "He's ignoring me."

Steve Paulson (35:43):

That is wonderful. So was this actually one of your dreams?

Patti Smith (35:48):

Yes. I often record my dreams, especially if I think they might be usable or transformable into something else. But this one intrigued me. I was sitting in the cafe and I wrote it down. And as I wrote it down, I thought, "It is easy writing about nothing. I could write about nothing all day." So I decided that I was just going to sit there and write about nothing. And that was the genesis of M Train.

Steve Paulson (36:18):

So I have to ask you, what do you mean when you say you're writing about nothing?

Patti Smith (36:24):

Well, for me writing about nothing means no agenda, no particular direction, no sense of responsibility to chronology, plot. It's like automatic writing in a way. It could also be saying the same as writing about everything.

Steve Paulson (36:42):

And there definitely is a dreamlike quality to this book. I mean, you're talking about various episodes from your life, but it's not so much a memoir like your earlier book Just Kids. But it's sort of these vignettes and reflections. They keep jumping around in time.

Patti Smith (36:58):

I think the dreamlike quality is because I spend a lot of time on my own. And I travel by myself a lot and I live alone. I mean, I don't have a companion at this time in my life. So I'm almost never with another person, unless it's work-oriented or with my kids. But in general, when I'm traveling without my band, I'm by myself.

Steve Paulson (37:23):

What does the title of your book M Train refer to?

Patti Smith (37:27):

Mind. I thought of that immediately because it's a train of thought. I didn't want to call it Mind Train because it reminded me of the... You know the song? (singing). You know that? I didn't want people to think of like a song. So I just thought M Train gave a little air of mystery.

Steve Paulson (37:47):

Yeah. Now one of the tools in your toolkit it would seem, is the photographs you take with your Polaroid camera. And you've included a bunch of these pictures in the book. I get the sense that you feel almost compelled to document certain things. You've seen places you've visited through your photos. Why are they so important to you?

Patti Smith (38:07):

Well, I think of them as evidence. I take two different kinds of photographs. Some as an artist, but other ones are really my souvenirs or scrapbook pictures. I often think that if my work was a crime, they would sort of be the forensic evidence. So it's also to share with people.

Patti Smith (38:33):

Because of my touring, I sometimes are in 40 cities in 50 days. And sometimes I go to very obscure places and I think, "Well, most people won't go to see Sylvia Plath's grave. It's not easy to get to, but I can take a picture and share it."

Patti Smith (38:53):

Or most people aren't going to go up the mountain in Lugano to find Hermann Hesse's typewriter, but I did. So if I take a picture of it, then other people can see it.

Steve Paulson (39:04):

So I have to ask you about this because I just found this totally fascinating as I was reading this. I mean, you have what are essentially elegies for clearly some of your favorite writers. You've just mentioned a couple of Hermann Hesse's, Sylvia Plath. I mean, there's Roberto Bolano, Murakami, Jean Genet. The list goes on. And you've made pilgrimages to a lot of homes where they used to live. Bolano in Spain, Frida Kahlo in Mexico. And you've visited a lot of their graves. Bertolt Brecht in Germany, Mishima in Japan. Wittgenstein, his grave in Cambridge, England, where I've also been to. Why do you go to these places? Why are they so important to you?

Patti Smith (39:44):

Well, I like to go. I mean, I find it magical that you can be in the proximity of a person's resting place. Cemeteries are often very beautiful. But also, sometimes I just go to thank the person.

Steve Paulson (40:01):

It's so interesting to hear you say that because I love cemeteries. They're among my favorite places to visit. I mean, there are some people who think, "My God, that's kind of morbid."

Patti Smith (40:09):

But it's not at all. I mean, there's all kinds of things that you can feel. To me, it's like any place where there's a lot of human emotion. You go into a church. I go to a lot of churches on the road to light candles or say a prayer. And I don't have any religion, but I like to go because these are houses where so many people have wept, have prayed, have felt joy, suffering.

Steve Paulson (40:39):

Now, I have to ask you about the books that you write about and the books that you gravitate to. Because I mean you write about masterpieces at one point, you say there are two kinds of masterpieces. They are the classic monumental books like Moby Dick or Wuthering Heights. And then there's a different kind of book, what you call devastating books. Like Bolano's 2666, Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Are these books that kind of when you read them, they just took hold of you, they possessed you?

Patti Smith (41:07):

Oh yes. I mean the first book that did that for me was the Glass Bead Game. Well, I mean, I could go back. And yes, it was Peter Pan, it was Little Women, but I mean in terms of a great master work.

Steve Paulson (41:22):

Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game.

Patti Smith (41:24):

Yes. That book I read over and over. It helped reset the way my mind works and the way my creative mind works. I felt like I would never as a writer be the same.

Patti Smith (41:57):


Steve Paulson (42:09):

Do you think of yourself mainly as a writer? Because of course you're best known, you're famous for your music, for being a punk rock legend. But how do you see yourself?

Patti Smith (42:19):

Well, since I was a child I wanted to write. I've written all my life. It's the one consistent thing I do. When I left the public eye for 16 years, when I got married, I didn't perform for 16 years. I didn't do much of anything connected with music or the music business, except privately with Fred at home.

Patti Smith (42:42):

But I wrote every day and really developed my craft in those 16 years. And it's the thing that I imagine I'll be doing for the rest of my life. I never planned to be a singer. I never dreamed of having a rock and roll band. Those things happened sort of organically, serendipitously. And I'm really happy that I did and proud of my band's accomplishments. And really because of it, I was able to see the world. But still, I think of myself as a writer.

Steve Paulson (43:19):

Of course you do perform a lot now. I mean, you've gone back to music. I assume that gives you pleasure.

Patti Smith (43:25):

Well, yeah, or I wouldn't do it. But performing is a whole different aspect of yourself than writing. Writing is very solitary. You don't need anybody, you don't need anything to write. You need paper and a pencil. That's all you need. And it's a very introspective work. Where performing is all public and it's all collaboration, because you're collaborating with your fellow musicians, your band, your technicians. Performance doesn't belong to anyone. It's a product of everyone having a common mind and making a night happen. So it's a beautiful thing, but it's almost the entire opposite. It's like I'm a bipolar artist, because one part of me is very public and the other part of me is just like a lone wolf.

Steve Paulson (44:23):

Well, part of the private side of this book is the way you write about grief. You write about your mother's death, your brothers, especially your husband's, Fred, who died way too young in 1994. And you're never straightforward about how you write about these things, but you have all kinds of just incredibly poignant passages about loss, about the emptiness that followed. Were these parts hard to write?

Patti Smith (44:50):

A few of them were hard. I can actually say that I cried when I wrote a couple of them. I know the parts that contain weeping. Not always the ones that people would think.

Patti Smith (45:03):

This little song is for Fred.

Patti Smith (45:05):

Sometimes a joyful passage will make me cry. Or something that's so full of hope that it'll simultaneously make me sad.

Patti Smith (45:14):


Steve Paulson (45:32):

For me, some of the most poignant passages are when you talk about you're slipping into a light but lingering malaise. Not a depression, more like a fascination for melancholia. And there's a fair amount of melancholy in this book, isn't there?

Patti Smith (45:47):

Well, I mean, it's a light melancholy. I'm not a depressive kind of person. I mean, sometimes I'll cry. The other night I couldn't sleep and I woke up in the middle of the night and saw a beautiful mind.

Patti Smith (46:01):

Again, Russell Crowe always reminds me of Fred. And every time I see that movie, I could cry for a half an hour. But it's all right, there's nothing wrong with that. I don't walk around depressive. Melancholy can be somewhat beautiful. I mean, sometimes I do feel a sudden terrible pain missing my brother, missing my mother. But you ride it out and then you're back on your feet.

Patti Smith (46:32):

But at that time when I started writing this book, I did get into this very uncharacteristic malaise. It just went on and on. By the end I realized it was just probably part of the aging process and suddenly becoming aware that I was in age. Because I've always been sort of Peter Pan-ish, I never really was concerned about my age. Even hardly noticed it.

Patti Smith (47:02):

But all of a sudden, the numbers as they get higher, you're forced to look at them. 65, 66. This year in December, I'll be 70. That's a real number. So it's a number to look at and examine and think, "Okay. If I'm 70, I have a finite time. So I have to think about how much time do I have left to do my work, to watch my children grow, to be productive, to be useful." And these were new thoughts for me.

Steve Paulson (47:35):

Now I'm wondering if we could end with one final passage from your book, and this is from back when you were living in Michigan or reflecting on it.

Patti Smith (47:44):

I actually would like to choose a different way.

Steve Paulson (47:46):

Oh, sure. Absolutely. Yes.

Patti Smith (47:48):

And the reason is because the paperback version has 20 new pages. And I thought it would be nice to read something that people haven't heard, if that's okay for you.

Steve Paulson (48:02):

Oh, I'd love that. Yes, please.

Patti Smith (48:04):

Okay. It's Christmas time and my daughter Jessie and I are walking around New York. And it was a very strange Christmas, unseasonably warm. And I think I felt little disconnected. Jessie and I are shopping. So I'll bring you in the middle of our shopping.

Steve Paulson (48:26):


Patti Smith (48:28):

It was so mild that we decided to walk home. As we passed the salvage place, I noticed an old metal sign spelling "cafe" with tiny colored lights. We entered, just look. We wandered about, admiring polished wood drafting tables, church pews, airplane propellers, and an ornate desk. Jessie had lingered by an old ship's wheel.

Patti Smith (48:54):

"Do you like nautical things?" I ask the shopkeeper.

Patti Smith (48:57):

"Yes," she answered.

Patti Smith (48:59):

But I could hear her thinking, "My dad liked them too." I suddenly felt very sad. We live in the timeframe of AF, after-Fred, bound by love and irreplaceable loss.

Patti Smith (49:14):

"You're tired." I told myself and looked up. And there before me was the object that had transformed and re-energized the atmosphere. A true object of desire. A time-stain tag identified it simply, 19th-century wishing well. The well as if it had materialized from childhood, where I had tossed coins that were wishes spanning time.

Patti Smith (49:42):

"Jessie. Jessie." I called, hardly able to speak. She joined me immediately and we stood before it, of one mind in wrapped silence.

Patti Smith (49:54):

"Make a wish." We both said.

Patti Smith (50:13):


Anne Strainchamps (50:14):

That's the legendary musician and poet, Patti Smith. She talked with Steve Paulson about her book, M Train.

Anne Strainchamps (50:23):


Anne Strainchamps (50:23):

That's it for our show today. But there's always more in our podcast feed. To sign up, visit iTunes or Stitcher, or just check out our website at To The Best Of Our Knowledge comes to you from Madison, Wisconsin, and the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio.

Anne Strainchamps (50:38):

This hour was put together by Steve Paulson, with help from Doug Gordon, Charleston Rokane, and Mark Rickers. Our technical director is Joe Harkey.

Anne Strainchamps (50:47):

I'm Anne Strainchamps. Until next time.

Speaker 8 (51:00):


Last modified: 
July 21, 2023